Pickwick and Weller - Review by Simon Jenner

 

A New Venture premiere by twice BAFTA-winning Barry Purchese with a set by West End designer Tim McQuillan-Wright . . . Oh and a little help from Dickens. Purchese has filleted Dickens’ 1000-page first novel from 1836, The Pickwick Papers, and condensed it to an elegant two hours fifteen in Pickwick and Weller.

That doesn’t mean the cast-list boils down to two: far from it. The Studio space boasts nineteen actors, some multi-roling, so very few – if any – of even second-tier characters are omitted (even if one becomes a scream offstage). John Tolputt and Nikolas Balfe lead the cast in their eponymous roles, notably supported by Culann Smyth’s father of Sam, Tony Weller, Bertie Purchese’s outrageous Alfred Jingle, Naomi Rose Horsfall’s Mary, Sam’s eventual fiancée.

The whole cast though thrill in exquisite character cameos, to consummate direction and blocking. At key openings and closes of scene they sing too. You think this might be turning out as a lost Dickens musical. It isn’t but shows potential!

McQuillan-Wright’s set, built by a team including him and Simon Glazier, is simply a sawdust-suggestive centre a few chairs and the real set is the audience’s seating. Set at vertiginously different tiers, a bit like a Donmar shrunk in the wash, with a ladder used at just one brief point (surely that could be amplified!). The set’s neatly lit by Dan Walker (operated by Alex Apps), with rousing, memorable music by Michael James with sound operated by Cata Lindegard.

Richi Blennerhasset designs costumes – a sky-blue overcoat for Pickwick, stunning turquoise neckerchiefs for the club (slight blue clash there) and many exquisite details of dress, notably the teal overcoat and much else wrought for Alfred Jingle when passing himself off as a rich captain. Top hats and much black complete an absolutely in-period outfitting for everyone, whether sergeants and lawyers, womens’ everyday or Sunday best (Mrs Bardell’s scarlet skirt). To top it there’s Julia Monkom’s hair and make-up,
and Ian Black is the armourer. Alex Worrall’s movement proves crucial in this tight space, and is seamless – particularly the exit through doors used with wit and élan, notably at the end. In all a sumptuous production.

The key narrative points of this picaresque and truly episodic novel – it was written in episodes as we’re reminded – are one decision with consequences. Samuel Pickwick inaugurates a Club with three friends (Tom Slater-Hydeman’s idiotic Nathaniel Winkle, Apollo Videux’ poet Augustus Snodgrass, Thomas Hobart’s elderly but wannabe swell Tracy Tupman).

They’re to travel Britain, usually together, and report on their findings. Amanda Harman’s Mrs Bardell (a widow and landlady to Pickwick) is clearly distressed at this until she realizes its not France they’re off to, and we’re alerted that her attachment to Pickwick is something he is oblivious of. Harman makes a neat job of someone perpetually having vapours, her eventual fainting-fit in court a tour-de-farce.

There’s a scene with an unpleasant coachman, Jerry Lyne’s first menacing role (later Sergeant Buzzfuzz) a quintessence of snarling surliness, even violence. En route they stay at an inn, where the Wellers work, and Sam is taken on. But not before a scream from Bryony Weaver’s Miss Witherfield joins the fainting fit of Mrs Bardell (whom Pickwick gallantly catches), both key moments that drive disasters.

It’s here Purchese’s jarringly-spoken Alfred Jingle arrives, though only latterly are we given some of his choice phraseology, including adding the emphasiser ‘very’ after the main sentence. His command of swagger and nonchalance is counterpointed by his philosophical fall from grace, his fever-broken, starveling avatar in Newgate where as we know Pickwick ends up too. He starts by getting Pickwick involved in a duel with Dr Slammer (realised with a quarrelsome scalpel’s edge by Martin Ryan) by wearing his blue coat.

Why does Bardell faint? Pickwick awkwardly expresses he’s engaging Weller as manservant, but in a way that two-for-one sounds vaguely like a marriage proposal to someone who’d construe it too keenly.

The counterplot swivels on wit, the curious Tony Weller, inveighing against marrying widows, and full of crackpot schemes including one for rescuing Pickwick in a hollow piano. Smyth relishes the off-kilter truculence and cheer fo this, set against Balfe’s lithe and quick-witted (if occasionally wrong) Sam, investing him with a dignity and faithfulness almost beyond credibility. Balfe, whose
quicksilver turns and expressive puzzlings-out can be read on his face, is as fine as Tolputt in the central role. Tolputt’s
bemused dignity and streak of iron don’t preclude a flash of anger and intemperate lashings-out. Both actors seem exactly right for their parts.

Hyndman makes much use of his upper-class-twitness sniffing his nose and dropping Pickwick in it by sheer incompetence. Videux’ Snodgrass has little room but as Justice Starleigh he can rip into caricature, whereas Hobart’s Tupman is confined to being just a bit old. Adam Kinkaid’s decent Mr Perker, who helps Sam spring Pickwick from where the lawyers have thrust him (you’ll need to find out why) is given brief warmth.

Gerry MccCrudden’s blathering half-wit lawyer Fogg is a delight, cut across by the far more dangerous Dodson, played by Bill Griffiths with a vocally rasping clarity – just what’s required here. He plays the duelling second Dr Payne as a canny intriguer too. Mark Lester is exceedingly nasty as the brutish sergeant Snubbins, Jeremy Crow as Magistrate Nupkins is allowed a streak of decency not to mention corruption, and Crow enjoys being able to change his notes to gratitude. Mark Green as Roker and Dubbley,
and Sam de Costobadie’s Jackson make neat impressions in small roles.

This is a swirl of virtuosity, a superbly realized romp with edge. To secure a world premiere with such a team is a tribute to NVT and everyone concerned in it. In a uniformly strong cast, Tolputt, Balfe, Smyth and Purchese have most to do and are most distinctive. But all the lesser roles are too. A triumph.

Simon Jenner